Charles O’Neill (1828–1900) civil engineer, Catholic lay leader, charity worker
While the St Vincent de Paul Society’s international profile is indeed remarkable, the history of the Society in Australia is also an inspiring tale, one that begins with the commitment and compassion of one man, Charles Gordon O’Neill.
Born in Glasgow in 1828, O’Neill trained as an engineer at Glasgow University. His expertise in this field would, later in life, see him take the lead in major engineering projects throughout New Zealand and Australia, including the Wellington to Wairarapa railway route, the Wellington tramways, and the Clyde River Bridge.
O’Neill was also somewhat of a visionary as an engineer. In 1885, more than 100 years before the eventual construction of today’s Sydney Harbour Tunnel, he tendered for the construction of a tunnel under the harbour to North Sydney.
Importantly, O’Neill’s considerable professional expertise was tempered by a giving nature and compassionate heart. No doubt his experience growing up on the river Clyde left a mark on his psyche. Eviction, starvation, forced public labour and the harsh environment of the poorhouses prompted more than a million Irish to flee the nightmare of the potato famine. As a young man, O’Neill would have seen the wretched human cargo arriving from Ireland on foul cargo vessels, in which men, women and children huddled together in filthy holds.
At the age of 23, O’Neill’s selfless desire to serve people in need prompted him to join the St Vincent de Paul Society in Dumbarton. His faith and steadfast commitment to the Society’s “good works” saw him rise quickly through the ranks. In 1863, he was elected President of the Superior Council of Glasgow and was an esteemed member of the Council General in Paris.
In 1864, O’Neill’s yearning for new and greater challenges led him to New Zealand. In addition to his previously mentioned exploits as one of the colony’s leading engineers, in Wellington in 1876 he founded the first conference to be aggregated in New Zealand.
O’Neill’s considerable professional talents saw him move to bustling Sydney Town in 1881. True to his commitment to the Vincentian vocation, he founded the first St Vincent de Paul Society conference in NSW on July 24 of that same year at St Patrick’s Church Hill, The Rocks.
Reminiscent of his early life in Glasgow, St Patrick’s, at that time, overlooked the desperate vista of the Quay, where the poor and destitute flooded into the slums and rambling back alleys of The Rocks.
Reflective of his meticulous and innovative skills as an engineer, O’Neill’s unwavering efforts in visitation, conference support and lobbying laid sound foundations for the Society’s growth in Australia. By 1890, as a direct result of his commitment, more than 20 conferences had been established throughout NSW. He was also instrumental in establishing the Society’s first “Special Work”, St Aloysius Home for Boys in Surry Hills.
By 1891, O’Neill’s solidarity with the poor and marginalised saw him swept up in the economic depression that hit the colony in the decade following the gold rush. Like many businesses and institutions of the time, the Northumberland Bank, of which he was nominally a director, collapsed. He suffered financial ruin. Although cleared of any impropriety by the courts, O’Neill’s commitment to protecting the reputation of the Society and the viability of its “good works” prompted him to step down from all Society offices.
O’Neill quietly endured the personal hardships thrust upon him. Thanks to his tireless efforts and unshakable resolve, the Society continued to grow. His own sacrifices, borne through his selfless service to the poor and destitute left him and his brother John in poverty. However, despite his failing health, O’Neill remained a committed Vincentian up until his death in St Vincent’s Hospital in 1900. He was buried in Rookwood cemetery.
In 1961, in accordance with his wish to be laid among those he dearly loved, O’Neill’s remains were moved to the Society’s burial plot for the destitute. His burial amidst those he served so well befit his commitment in life. As a cutting, attributed to Saint Vincent de Paul, from O’Neill’s Society Manual reads: “Those who love the poor in life shall have no fear of death.”
After years of meticulous research, the St Vincent de Paul Society is currently in the final stages of producing a lengthy study of Charles Gordon O’Neill’s extraordinary life. The book is due for publication in March 2008, an event that will be marked by a celebration of his remarkable life and unwavering legacy.
O’Neill’s commitment to the Vincentian vocation goes right to the heart of the Society today. He continues to inspire thousands of Society members throughout Australia and beyond. He truly was an unrivaled engineer of charity.
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